5 Suggestions from a Youth Pastor to the Leaders in Washington D.C.

Just a few days ago my husband and I were leading a lesson with 5th-6th grade students that focused on  sentences written  in a letter two centuries ago:  “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone”  (Colossians 4:5-6, NIV).  As I was teaching these kids, I couldn’t help but wonder if our government is really making the most of every opportunity to be a beacon to the world outside Washington D.C. right now.  And, I realized I rarely see conversations between elected leaders that are seasoned with salt and full of gracious responses.   

So, the thoughts below are really nothing new – but I don’t see these values being practiced in our nation’s capitol  much these days.  I hope somewhere in this list of suggestions, there will be nuggets of truth that would penetrate the political muck in which Washington seems to be stuck:

1.  Make the Most of the Power of One

In all my years of leading a student ministry, it wasn’t any of my clever, charismatic lessons (some would say they weren’t at all clever or charismatic!), or outrageously fun activities for our students that made the lasting difference in their lives.  It was one adult life intersecting with one teen life over and over across many years that left powerful, life-giving imprints on these students.

What if government could wade into a messier, but more effective model of leading towards change – like striving as much as possible for values and decisions that encourage and enable (not require) individual citizens to give help and facilitate change for a few others who need  it.  I strongly believe that one person reaching out and helping another person is the model of mercy and justice that  makes the most difference.  I know such an approach can’t work in every situation, but whenever possible, I’d like to see government equip the people to be the change agents instead of taking on the role of change agent.   I definitely think it could happen a lot more than it’s happening right now.   And for the record, I don’t consider increased taxes as an intentional way for me to help someone else.  It robs me of the opportunity to get involved with my thoughts, my time, my creativity and my energy -  and probably more of my money.

The big critique of capitalism is that it creates a culture of greed and selfishness – and sometimes that’s true.  But, I would love for the United States to become a nation of people whose capitalism is known for giving and serving others because we are blessed, instead of taking because we can.  It’s like the mission of an organization like One Day’s Wages, http://www.onedayswages.org/  where everyone is challenged to examine how much they make in a day and give at least that much for the sake of another.  That would be a good start for change.  One crazy idea that maybe has already been proposed:  create a way for Americans to donate their money to fund health insurance for another person who cannot afford it.  People tend to give more and sacrifice more when it’s their choice and when they know exactly what their money is going to.  And if they are giving in closer proximity to their own daily life, they build and strengthen their own community more effectively.

 2.  Leaders as Learners

This one is huge, because often when we take the reins of leadership over something, we forget to keep learning from the people we lead – especially if we have different opinions, methods, perspectives, experiences and priorities.  But, I would argue that the people who are most different from us have the greatest capacity to teach us because the tension caused in the differences is what stretches our understanding, deepens our compassion, and requires us to be more patient in working through change.

I for one sure would like to see more Washington leaders learning from those they might consider antagonists.  All I’ve seen lately is a facade of attempted collaboration; a veneer of intended reciprocity.  I truly believe it’s possible, and  that it is the right thing to do, even if it takes longer.   I think listening and dialoguing well at town halls organized by elected leaders AND at grassroots events like the tea parties is a great first step  – but then we have to respect and wrestle with the concerns and ideas that have been offered.  There should be no bully pulpits in Washington – on any side of the debates.

3.  Practitioners make better Pontificators

No one would ever accuse me of being at a loss for words.  I typically have an opinion about everything and I don’t usually hesitate to offer my thoughts.  But,  topics that are deeply woven into the fabric of my life are the ones I can dialogue about in a way that gets people to listen and act because they know I’m not just spouting steam, I’m sharing about something that I live and breathe everyday.

I think I speak for a lot of people who really want our elected leaders to remember that their influence and wisdom is only as strong as what they practice each day.  If they aren’t living in the  environment their decisions have created, they widen the chasm between the government and the people.  If they have no tangible connection to the world and values they represent, then they may still  have an impact, but it will be shallow, uninformed or worse -  destructive.  I really wonder how government would look different if part of an elected official’s job was to volunteer 5-10 hours a week in the their field of expertise or somewhere that legislative decisions are visibly impacting.  Hmmm…  another crazy idea.

4.  Every Word Counts for Something

I have a friend who is also my verbal hero.  She has taught me through her own example that every word that comes out of my mouth leaves an impression, elicits a response and affects another human being or situation.  I strive (not always successfully) to model the lessons she has lived for me because I see the way her words – and her silence can lift people up everywhere she goes. 

Here’s some of her practices that help me clarify and refine the tone of every conversation:  Don’t aim sarcasm at someone I obviously don’t care for – it screams of disdain and weakens my cause.   Don’t belittle the attempts of well-meaning people who are reminding me that there are more opinions out there than just mine  – it makes people question my intentions.  It’s ok and healthy to articulate frustration with a situation or a person – it’s not ok to shut down discussion and ignore the reality of difference so I can just do it my way.

5.  Make the Most of Your Legacy

Lastly, none of us will do our job forever.  Sometimes we have the luxury of knowing how long we will lead.  Sometimes we don’t.  But regardless, we should do everything in our power to leave a deep, rich legacy that the next leader can build on.  Obviously, circumstances out of our control can short-circuit our plans and dreams for change, but we can only “make the most of every opportunity” given to us and not intentionally leave our successors with more problems than solutions.  It starts with constructing plans that build toward goals instead of tearing down by digging up blame.  It keeps going by not just shooting for immediate results but also examining future ramifications.  And it finishes well when people have trusted your leadership in spite of the differences between you and them.

As a person who has spent over fifteen years in ministry, these are some of the lessons I learned that I can’t help but believe are applicable in any job and in any circumstance.  I realize I’ve invited chuckles from those who think this little commentary oozes with naiveté, but I’m willing to take that risk because naiveté seems to be quite the opposite of cynicism and we certainly don’t need more of that right now.  So, maybe a little hope, a little civility, and a fresh perspective could make a small change, or be the beginning of a bigger one.

But mostly, I want to be able to show my students how our elected leaders truly do make the most of every opportunity to lead well, and…just like a delicious bowl of buttery popcorn, they add such a tasty pinch of saltiness to every conversation, that people want more of the leadership they have to offer. 

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